It was a year like no other in Dawson County.
A chemical spill at Gold Creek Foods contaminated local streams and killed 8,000 fish.
Members of the Rainbow Family of Living Light made themselves at home at the Chattahoochee National Forest for an annual gathering.
Dawsonville began monthly Food Truck Fridays to bring the community together.
Prayers before Dawson County High School football games became national news.
A number of notable locals found their way into the headlines with heartwarming discoveries in 2018. After searching for 44 years, Tara Hardwick was reunited with her foster brother.
After the loss of his airman son, Karl Porfirio published a children’s book honoring his son and teaching children to be proud of their military parents.
After watching their friend Natalie Herndon battle cancer, Mia Phillips and Lili Almazan, fifth grade friends at Blacks Mill Elementary School, shaved their heads and donated their long locks to Wigs for Kids.
And after 20 years behind the pulpit, First Baptist Church of Dawsonville’s longest serving pastor Jim Gaines retired.
It was also a year that brought the loss of pillars in the community.
In August, the community came together to remember Cecil Bennett, a longtime board of education member who served the children of Dawson County for 25 years.
A month later, it was time to say goodbye to Vaudell Sosebee, wife of the late racing pioneer Gober Sosebee and a longtime volunteer at the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame.
As Dawson County welcomes the New Year, here is a look back at some of the biggest moments of 2018 that marked it as a year to remember.
Chase Elliott gets first win
Local NASCAR hero Chase Elliott had a historic year in 2018. After a good-luck charm promotion by the Atlanta Motor Speedway in January, Elliott took part in a Feb. 25 race at AMS where he was the youngest driver – at 22 years old – and the only Hendrick Motorsports driver to secure a top 10 finish.
His luck continued in August when Elliott brought home his first career win in his 99th Cup Series race at Watkin’s Glen and celebrated with Dawsonville fans at Elliott Field.
In October the siren at the Pool Room sounded once again, alerting Dawsonville that Elliott had secured a second first-place finish, this time at Dover International Speedway. The win advanced Elliott into the Round of 8 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
To end Elliott’s historic season, he received the National Motorsports Press Association’s Most Popular Driver award Nov. 29 in Las Vegas, Nev.
Mike Eason elected Mayor
It was an interesting year in Dawsonville politics as ousted mayor James Grogan went head-to-head with acting mayor Mike Eason in a special election to determine who city citizens wanted as their mayor.
Grogan, who was removed from his office by the city council in May 2017, sought reelection so that he could serve out the remainder of his curtailed term.
In March, Eason was elected as mayor after serving as active mayor since December 2017. He was officially sworn into office in April 2018.
To add salt to the wound, the city sought reimbursement for salary and benefits paid to the former mayor. In March Superior Court Judge Andrew Fuller denied Grogan’s appeal and ordered Grogan to pay back $25,060.88 to the city.
Grogan pursued further legal action at the state level. In October, Grogan's attorney Steven Leibel appeared before the Georgia Supreme Court to present oral arguments with the hopes the court would reverse the Dawson County Superior Court’s decisions so that Grogan had a clean slate to appeal again.
As of press time, a decision from the state Supreme Court has not yet been delivered.
School safety a priority after shooting
In the wake of the Parkland, Fla. shooting in February, school safety was at the forefront in 2018 with schools across the nation looking for ways to protect students.
In March, Dawson County Schools hosted an informational workshop to inform the community of current safety procedures as well as solicit constructive input to increase safety measures.
Over 150 attended the workshop and provided feedback that was compiled and brought before the board of education in April with suggested safety upgrades. The board decided to allocate $400,000 from ESPLOST funds to go toward countywide safety upgrades. A Safe Schools Coordinator position was created, currently held by Tony Wooten, to oversee and assist with system-wide school safety services. A new buzz-in system was placed at each campus and additional school resource officers were funded as well.
The roll out of the 1Dawson app where users are encouraged to “see something, say something” helped school officials and law enforcement arrest several local teens for posting terroristic threats online.
With the state legislature’s approval of $16 million of the FY2019 budget to be divided among school districts for security measures, Dawson County Schools received approximately $47,000 to allocate to safety measures of their choosing.
In May, Dawson County hosted the first House Study Committee on School Security meeting that gathered education and law enforcement representatives across north Georgia to discuss school safety measures with state officials. Both Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson and Superintendent Damon Gibbs provided feedback and discussion of safety measures taken by the system during the meeting.
Safety continued to be of the utmost importance to the school system in September when school officials hosted the inaugural 1Dawson Learning Academy where department heads led in-depth discussions of the operations of the school system and discussed current procedure for school safety for those in attendance.
July 4th fireworks burn 3 homes
Tragedy struck in the Burt’s Crossing subdivision late July 4 when three families were left without homes after a midnight fire caused by improperly disposed of fireworks. Homes at 38, 48 and 60 Burt’s Crossing Drive were destroyed. Dawson County Emergency Services arrived at the scene at approximately 12:15 a.m. July 5 and the fire was contained within an hour, but 11 people were displaced once the smoke cleared and several other homes were impacted with heat damage.
GoFundMe pages were set up for the three families to help rebuild their lives and local organizations including the Burt’s Crossing Homeowners’ Association, RIC Rack, Fajita Grill in Dawsonville and Pizzeria Azzurri in Cumming stepped up by collecting gift cards, food items and donating a percentage of their sales to the victims.
High school football team has historic year
The Dawson County High School varsity football team saw their most winningest season in 2018, ending with a record of 10-2 in the state playoffs Sweet 16.
The team set several school records during the 2018 season, breaking the record for most wins in a single season as well as breaking and then resetting the record for number of points in a single game by first reaching 58 points against Chestatee then resetting it when they scored 64 points against East Hall.
Thirteen members of the team were also named to the 7-AAA All-Region Team, the most players of any team in the region to be named as All-Region Awards recipients or Region First Team players.
Senior running back Ahmad Kamara received the Offensive Most Valuable Player Award while senior quarterback SeVaughn Clark was named Co-Athlete of the Year (along with GAC Spartan Ty James).
Sophomore Caleb Bonesteel won the Special Teams Player of the Year Award and defensive lineman Zac Baloga and free safety Logan Barnes were named to the 3A All-State Football Team.
Hot Wheels come to town
In 2018 Hot Wheels announced the Hot Wheels Legends tour in honor of the 50th anniversary of the original “Sweet 16” die-cast cars.
Hot Wheels embarked on a 15-city tour across the United States in search of the next Legends car to be added to the die-cast fleet and stopped at the Walmart in Dawsonville on the sixth stop of the tour.
The event brought out nearly 3,000 spectators and more than 270 registered cars vying for the finalist spot. Organizers said it was the largest turnout for the tour so far.
At the end of the day, Robert Graham from Clarkesville was named the finalist for the Atlanta leg of the tour with his custom hotrod designed by his grandson. The Surf Rod took six years to build and was built on a budget of $25 per week.
The Surf Rod competed with 14 other finalist hotrods at SEMA 2018 in Las Vegas, but the winning car to be made into a Hot Wheels die-cast was the 2JETS built by Luis Rodriguez from the New York/New Jersey leg of the tour.
Community mourns death of high school senior
In February, the community wept as they said goodbye to Dawson County High School senior and 2017 football homecoming queen Grace Sheer, who was killed in a tragic car wreck on her way to school.
In the wake of her death the community came together, hosting a celebration of her life at Mountain Lake Church with her teachers, teammates and friends recounting their favorite memories of Sheer to an overflowing auditorium of more than 400 people.
In May, the DCHS Interact Club, of which Sheer was a part, planted a tree in her memory in the front of the high school and in July, Fit Body Boot Camp of Dawsonville organized the ‘Race for Grace’ 5K event to bring the community together once more in honor of Sheer. The inaugural race was a huge success, raising $7,000 for a scholarship fund set up in Sheer’s name. The fitness center will provide a scholarship for one female athlete at DCHS who exemplifies Sheer through her work ethic, kindness and dedication not only to athletics but also academically and with her outstanding character.
Community celebrates milestones
There were several big accomplishments celebrated by local organizations in 2018.
The Dawson County Humane Society celebrated its 10 year anniversary in June by purchasing the land it sits on from Etowah Water and Sewer Authority. A new adoption van was also purchased and the shelter expanded its cat rooms and expanded its intake runs for dogs. Adoption efforts were expanded with adoption events being held at PetSmart and Petco in Dawsonville and PetSmart in Cumming. In its first decade, the humane society has found homes for more than 6,000 homeless animals in Dawson County.
The Margie Weaver Senior Center also celebrated receiving the Community Development Block Grant for $750,000 in August. The grant will go towards erecting the new senior center next to the existing Margie Weaver Senior Center, connected via a covered breezeway. The new center will consist of a multipurpose room for lunch and special events, a game room with computers, a movie room, a commercial kitchen, a conference room, an Alzheimer’s respite care room and lots of storage space. The county will break ground on the new facility in 2019.
Ground also moved on the long-awaited Main Street Park behind Food Lion and the Dawsonville Municipal Complex. Over the summer dirt officially began to move on the 18-acre park and crews have been grading and grassing the land and installing a road that runs through the park. City officials discussed park amenities at the end of August that included working to design a playground with inclusive equipment and landscaping designs. Later will be the installation of street lighting and the playground installation as well as the construction of a restroom and concession facility.
Sheriff loses budget lawsuit
The Dawson County Sheriff’s Office also saw a lot of change this year.
After a rocky end to 2017 with Sheriff Jeff Johnson filing a lawsuit against the Dawson County Board of Commissioners in November for more money in his 2018 budget, the dust settled in March when Dawson County Superior Court Senior Judge Fred A. Bishop ruled in favor of the board.
Johnson initially sued for $700,000 in additional funding, stating that he had not been allocated enough funds to adequately perform his duties as an elected official. In Bishop’s ruling, he stated that there had been no abuse of discretion and that had the judge ruled in Johnson’s favor, he still would not have the authority to tell the commission how much money to give to the sheriff’s department.
Since the ruling, the sheriff’s department has worked to find funds within their allotted budget and to repurpose tools already at their disposal. The most notable effort to recycle unused resources was the reinstatement of the special weapons and tactics, or SWAT, team after it disbanded 10 years ago.
With battering rams, axes and other breaching devices as well as bullet proof riot shields at their disposal, new equipment didn’t need to be purchased. Two vehicles sitting unused among the DCSO fleet were retrofitted to be used by the SWAT team, including an old ambulance that is now used as the semi-command center.
Uniforms, ballistic vests and other protective gear for the officers was purchased with seized funds from drug busts. Members of the SWAT team are also full-time officers within the agency so no extra personnel were hired.
ESPLOST dollars at work
One big ESPLOST project celebrated its grand unveiling while another celebrated its groundbreaking in 2018. After much anticipation, the JROTC program finally moved in to its brand new facility in January.
Cadets spent their first day back from winter break stocking the new building with textbooks, uniforms and equipment. The two-story facility was built with the needs of the program in mind, with a large multi-purpose room on the first floor to be used as the indoor air rifle range and two spacious classrooms, two offices, two dressing rooms, a unisex bathroom, a laundry room, an arms room and a uniform storage room on the second floor.
Soon after the ribbon cutting on the $1.9 million facility, Dawson County Schools announced the latest ESPLOST project that is set to open August 2019. The College and Career Academy, a 35,000 square foot, two story facility, officially broke ground in September. The $7 million facility is completely funded through the county’s ESPLOST funds and will feature state of the art labs and technology for CTAE (Career, Technical and Agricultural Education) and dual enrollment students.
A long road of roadworks
A number of changes came to Dawson County roads this year, with some rejoicing and lamenting from local drivers.
In the spring, the roundabout at Hwy. 53 and Hwy. 183 was finally completed, but more roundabouts will be coming to Dawson County soon as the Georgia Department of Transportation plans to install a double roundabout at the intersection of Hwy. 9 and Dawson Forest. Work on the Hwy. 52 and Hwy. 183 roundabout got underway this year, but the project is not set to be completed until May 2020.
In July, the stretch of Hwy. 53 east from Hugh Stowers Road and Buddy Burt Road was restriped by the GDOT to remove the passing lane.
And in October, just before the Mountain Moonshine Festival, both lanes of the Hwy. 9 bridge over the Etowah River were opened to much rejoicing from drivers. After a year of construction, a one-lane bridge and lengthy red lights, the two-lane bridge is now smooth sailing.
Construction also began on the long-awaited turn lanes at Lumpkin Campground Road and Hwy. 53. The lanes are set to be completed in early 2019.